“When you manage them, you need to be right all the time,” Johnson said. “It’s not what I’ve done in the past. It’s every day.”
In this regard, Johnson calls himself “the problem solver.” He wants his players to perceive him as someone whom they can come to him with their issues, hitting or home life — and who can fix them. His victims, then, can be his coaching staff. Johnson can wear them out, in part because he is constantly thinking two or three days ahead.
“It’s Monday, and he’s on Wednesday,” Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr said. “And I’ve got to bring him back to the moment. I’m like, ‘Skip, who’s hitting? Who’s hitting right now?’ ”
In early September, the Chicago Cubs visited Nationals Park. Johnson turned to Knorr and said, “Who’s their hitting coach?” Knorr’s response: “I don’t know. We play them twice a year.”
“Well, don’t you think that’s something you should know?” Johnson said. Another coach scrambled to track down the answer. Why Johnson wanted it hardly mattered.
“I’m observant, and I care,” Johnson said. “I want to put our best foot forward. I don’t want to miss any details. And if I’m critical, I only mean it to be positive criticism. And the criticisms are few and far between — though I guess, probably, the frequency level is greater than I think it is.”
His coaches, like the players, therefore understand the expectations. And as his mind works through a game — an inning from now, two innings from now, on to how he’ll use pitchers later in the week — they try to catch up with him.
“He says things at times where you’re like, ‘Man. What?’ ” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “And two days later, you’re like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God! I get it.’ There’s just a confidence that you feel when you’re with him, because you know that he has your best interest at heart.”
‘He believes in me’
All of this is part of Johnson’s information-gathering process. He admits, even after a season-and-a-half back in the majors, he is still learning the tendencies and idiosyncrasies of all the Nationals’ opponents. He will use his players, his coaches, the stats — whatever he can get his hands on — to draw his conclusions. But once he does, they’re his conclusions. He will share them. He won’t change them.
“He can be hard-headed,” said Ray Knight, a third baseman on Johnson’s Mets teams and a coach for him in Cincinnati, who serves as an analyst for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which carries Nationals games. “Once he’s convinced in what he thinks is right, you couldn’t take a Mack truck and pull it out of his brain. He’s going to go with that.”
In the waning days of the race to clinch the division title, Johnson sat second baseman Danny Espinosa for a game in Philadelphia. “Go ask him the reasoning,” Espinosa told inquisitive reporters. “I’d like to know, too.”
Twenty-nine of the 30 major league managers likely would have said something akin to, “Just wanted to get another player a chance” or “Just a night off.” Johnson’s answer: “I think he’s been pressing a little bit lately.”
By the sixth inning that night, Espinosa was back in. The next night, he started, his role restored. It is typical Johnson. Last summer, some forces both inside and outside the organization thought it might be best to trade shortstop Ian Desmond. Johnson’s response was to tell Desmond: “You’re going to go out there, and you’re going to play.”
“That kind of took the weight off my shoulders a little bit,” Desmond said. “. . . I felt like the audition was over. I’m not going out trying to prove to people I can play at this level. I’m not going out trying to prove to people I can hit at this level. I’m just going out there, and I’m the guy, regardless of what happens.”
This season, Desmond smacked 25 homers and became an all-star. “He believes in me,” he said of Johnson.
He believes, too, in himself, and in his Nationals team as a whole. On mornings this summer when the team was home, Davey and Susan Johnson would wake up in their brownstone in Old Town Alexandria and walk along the Potomac. They could talk about anything, because Davey knew his team — the group that finished the regular season with the best record in baseball — gave him little about which to worry. That kind of confidence, for a baseball player or baseball team, can be all the motivation necessary.
“I’ve got to gain their respect and trust, and it goes both ways,” Johnson said. “Every day, they’ve got to gain my respect and trust. And that’s a very healthy relationship. It works not just in baseball. It works, to me, in life.”